The marking of this year's English tests for 14-year-olds is being questioned by schools, following discoveries of widespread inconsistencies.
With the first national targets for this age group and the introduction of the Government's new key stage 3 strategy from September, the importance of the tests has been increased for secondary schools.
A number of teachers have queried results from this summer's tests and returned all scripts for remarking, amid fears that inaccurate scores will take on increasing significance.
At Eggbuckland community college, Plymouth, the proportion of 14-year-olds achieving the expected level 5 fell by 18 percentage points to 54 per cent this summer. In 2000, the proportion making the grade shot up by a fifth, yet the two cohorts were of very similar ability.
Head of English Sarah Young said: "Such violent swings of the pendulum from one year to the next is worrying and undermines our ability to use national tests for benchmarking."
She said some pupils were awarded levels lower than in tests at age 11. Others will have over-inflated predictions for their GCSEperformance.
The head of English at one London school queried why his English marks this year were significantly lower than the maths and science scores. He said:
"These tests are often so way out that we have told our Year 9s that they should just ignore the national test results and go by teacher assessment."
Last summer, many schools received their English results later than expected because of extra checks by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Despite the tightening up of procedures, there was a surge in the number of appeals and nearly 18,000 papers were upgraded.
Trevor Millum, development director for the National Association for the Teaching of English, said it was clear that national test marking was not up to scratch. He said teacher assessment should play a bigger part in establishing student levels.
David Hargreaves, QCA chief executive, has proposed that teacher assessment be used to reduce the burden of an "elaborate, extensive and expensive" testing system.
AQCA spokesman said: It is wellknown that absolutely consistent marking of language work is difficult because of the wide range of ways children can express themselves. We do aim at as careful a standardisation as possible."